James Rigato: Keeping It Real in Detroit

Millennial chef James Rigato dishes on his new restaurant Mabel Gray, the most important lessons learned while being a “Top Chef” contestant, and why he’s sick of a white-collar food industry.

Chef James Rigato  | Credit: Detroit Free Press

Chef James Rigato | Credit: Detroit Free Press

Before he appeared on the 12th season of “Top Chef,” James Rigato had already built a reputation in Michigan as one of the area’s top chefs with his award-winning restaurant, The Root, in suburban Oakland County in Michigan. 

Even though the 31-year-old chef was unceremoniously booted for a “meh” seafood salad that critics panned, he brought a lot of attention to his beloved Great Lakes State, to which he pays homage to in his dishes, as well as made new chef friends with whom to collaborate, one of his favorite culinary endeavors.

His philosophy on cooking stems from a lifelong love of food cultivated by his Italian grandparents and passion for Michigan’s diverse agricultural bounty. He started as a dishwasher at age 14 at a diner, and enrolled in the much-lauded culinary arts program at Schoolcraft College. After graduating from culinary school, he worked at some of the area’s finest restaurants, including the Rugby Grille at the tony Townsend Hotel and Bacco Ristorante before helming the kitchen at The Root, which he opened at age 26. The restaurant drew accolades such as the Detroit Free Press’ “Restaurant of the Year” in 2012, and Rigato himself was recognized by publications like Food & Wine.

Catching Up With James Rigato

Having just recently opened his second restaurant, Mabel Gray in Hazel Park, a blue-collar suburb of Detroit, he took time from his busy schedule to talk to us about his collaborative, popular chef series Young Guns, what he learned from “Top Chef,” and his thoughts on the local dining scene.

Foodable: How has business been so far at Mabel Gray?

James Rigato: So far, so good… the menu changes every day. We handwrite the menu; it’s about an 8-12 item menu and it changes 25-50 percent a day. Most dishes don’t last longer than a week. A couple of dishes I kept around like this crazy fried (savory) banana (with cilantro and jalapeño) I kept around … it’s important to have offerings for people to talk about, come in and check out.

Foodable: Now that you have opened Mabel Gray, do you have plans to expand outside of Michigan?

JR: No, no not at all. This is my second restaurant. There’s only 42 seats, so far my forward movement has been to downsize and to kind of focus more on the plate and cooking every night. Right now I literally cook on the line every night, we have five dinners a week, and I’m here every single shift.

Foodable: So obligatory “Top Chef” question: How did it change your career?

JR: It changed my career a lot. “Top Chef” was kind of like a grad school, you go and you’re competing with some of the best people in their fields in their parts of the country. I basically went and got a calibration of where I was at and what improvement looks like … something like my relationship with (“Top Chef” winner) Mei Lin (who is from a Detroit suburb). She comes (to Detroit) and we cook together, I go to L.A. and see her. We’ve done a bunch of dinners together and every time I cook with her I learn something. Being scrutinized by judges and fellow chefs taught me a lot about how to look at my dishes and season and how to edit. It definitely made me a better chef and I’m really appreciative of that opportunity. The big win was really to network, so now I have friends I didn’t before and that’s better than winning.

Foodable: Do you have plans to do more Young Guns dinners?

JR: I don’t think so, the way that we ended it with … a really high note with a packed house. We had Adam (Harvey) from New York, Melissa (King) from San Francisco, Mei from L.A., Ed (Sura of Perennial Virant) from Chicago … we had so much national people and so much national influence at that dinner, which was a big sold-out event and a packed house … I don’t think you should continue to do something unless you can do it better … I think we ended on a high note and I think that series specifically is maybe retired. I like doing events, I like having chefs come and cook and collaborate. I’m not done doing collaborative efforts at all, but Young Guns itself — I kind of like the idea of having something go out with a bang and that’s it.

It was never about money, we never made a lot of money. Everyone volunteers their time. It was kind of fun to build it up and build it up and see where it was going … I felt like it was mission accomplished.

The chef doing his thing at Mabel Gray  | Credit: Instagram, @joevaughn

The chef doing his thing at Mabel Gray | Credit: Instagram, @joevaughn

Foodable: I came in there a couple of weeks ago and there were a few chefs in my party who were old school, and they were like “Look at this young guy and his tattoos.” Do you see a lot of that old school vs new school…

JR: Push back?

Foodable: Yeah, like “He doesn’t have a chef coat and he doesn’t have the hat” … people who come from old-school kitchens where chefs threw pans at their heads.

JR: My pushback is that I’m sick of the food industry going white collar. I feel like there’s too many $200 tasting menus, like exclusive dining experiences, dress code. If anything, I’m often pushing back against the exclusivity of food. So I’m classically trained. I went to Schoolcraft, I have a number of awards and accolades. I don’t even have a resume, but if I typed one up it would probably look pretentious as shit. (But) when you come in what does any of that matter? What matters is the dining experience and what’s on the plate and how do you feel and what’s the ambience and what’s the vibe? And the flavors and the quality of ingredients … I think it’s a really pretentious thing to exclude the public, right?

I wear a chef coat at The Root, it’s very much a chef coat restaurant: the open shiny line, the space is kind of like comfortable, it’s a larger restaurant. I’m (at Mabel Gray) all day, I prep everything myself, I have a great team but a lot of dishes I’m prepping and butchering. It’s a blue-collar town, it’s a blue-collar job. I’m keeping it real. That’s what it comes down to. If someone comes in and says, “This isn’t the way it used to be,” that’s kind of the problem in any industry right? That’s why hip hop was shit on and that’s why modern art is frowned upon or graffiti is misunderstood … I don’t think I’m starting any trend … I have a $150 custom apron, that’s more than a chef coat costs. There’s still the focus on ingredients and quality down to my clothing. But I just think, like, if I was in a chef coat in this space, I don’t think I would fit in. There’s mismatched china and hand-written menus, we’re playing Tupac, there’s 40s of Budweiser and goat Bolognese … I don’t think a chef coat fits … Food is an equalizer. … This is just a restaurant I have fun in and I want to eat at.

Foodable: More recent restaurants like Mabel Gray and Selden Standard (another locally focused chef-driven restaurant in Detroit that was also named a “Restaurant of the Year” by “Detroit Free Press”) are not the white tablecloth but still have a high quality of execution and are usually mentioned in regards to top restaurants in the city. Why do you think this concept has resonated with diners? 

JR: (Detroit) is a car town … We have a unique set of values and so I think like integrity, craftsmanship, engineering — these are all the things that make Detroit … Our history is based on quality of work and not really labels and brands. Even like our Big Three (Ford, Chrysler, and GM) aren’t luxury brands. We’re like the working man … I think the dining scene is about the need and style of the population, not the other way around.

Andy (Hollyday of Selden Standard) and I aren’t trailblazers. Chicago has been doing it for years because Chicago is that kind of town. Paul Kahan is one of the most accomplished chefs I know … we did a dinner a couple of months after he (won the James Beard award) and at that dinner he was just wearing shorts, like pirate shorts. He did a snail sausage, pork sausage like boudin blanc encapsulated by snails. It was one of the highest techniques of charcuterie I’ve ever seen and he’s wearing shorts. Does that mean charcuterie isn’t dope because he’s wearing shorts? You know if you go to a famous sausage maker in France or Italy, I guarantee that dude is covered in blood and wearing shorts in a barn … I think what’s happening, we’re shortening the distance between the guest and the chef and with that comes an open kitchen, pull away the white linen. If I come here and get a French dip, I want a 40 of Budweiser. Or if get a tasting menu I want Old World wines and cocktails and … I want everything. Food is recreation nowadays, it’s not just sustenance, it’s recreation, it’s entertainment.